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Going to the Movies (and More) in iTunes 4.8

by J.D. Biersdorfer

It's the nature of writing books about the iPod: you find yourself haunting Apple's website for any new announcements, product introductions, updates, or other developments that you need to get into the next printing of the book--in my case, iPod & iTunes: The Missing Manual. So I was lurking around the net the day Apple updated iTunes to version 4.8 in early May, but was surprised at how quiet they were about it.

The iTunes 4.8 update wasn't announced with the feature-touting fanfare of piccolo trumpets that can sometime accompany software upgrades, so at first glance, the new version seemed like a slice of snore pie with yawn sauce. Among the usual code-tuning, tweaks, and security-tightening that come with most software updates, iTunes 4.8 now includes a feature to make transferring contacts and calendars on a Mac OS X 10.4 system easier. But, wait. There's more.

Apple aficionados, iPod websites, and tech pundits quickly latched on to the other major addition to this new version: iTunes could now sort, store, and play video clips. No, not those music videos and movie trailers that have been available for screening and streaming in the iTunes Music Store for months now, but film clips on your hard drive that were downloaded from the Web or otherwise added from your digital camcorder projects and other sources, including ... the iTunes Music Store (we'll get to that part in a minute).

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iPod and iTunes: The Missing Manual
By J.D. Biersdorfer

The mere mention of anything video-related in conjunction with iTunes sent iPod-minded members of the blogosphere into a frenzy of speculation that the iPod would soon be supporting the playback of full-motion video. The notion of a "vPod" has been a longtime fantasy, and Apple has already produced the iPod Photo with its 60 GB capacity, sharp color screen, and AV connectivity, so video doesn't seem like that big of a leap.

Hopefully, that sort of thing isn't too far off on Podworld. Although questions of copyright still linger, some companies have already acknowledged this desire for portable, personalized programming. SnapStream users have been able to shoehorn digitized TV shows onto their Pocket PCs for years. Not too long ago, TiVo introduced its TiVoToGo feature that lets you copy shows you recorded on your TiVo Series2 box onto your laptop or burn them to a DVD for viewing outside of the living room.

Sony's sleek PlayStation Portable hand-held game machine sports a crisp color screen, and it didn't take long until someone over at Engadget figured out how to make it play video and DVD data, so commuters can watch digitized episodes of Deadwood on a PSP and forget all about the daily round-trip schlep on New Jersey Transit. It's no wonder that iPod people are hoping for similar features for these little white bricks that have become so much of their lives.

Playing Music Videos from the iTunes Music Store

Although there was no video iPod sweeping into the room in a flourish behind iTunes 4.8, the addition of video playback to the software does have some immediate uses: the iTunes Music Store now has a growing amount of bonus music videos available alongside music tracks that you can buy and download. New releases by the Dave Matthews Band and Coldplay even portend a paradigm wiggle for digital music downloads: the albums come with video interviews and downloadable digital booklets with artwork and liner notes, as shown in Figure 1.

figure 1
Figure 1. Coldplay's new album includes a couple of treats when you buy it from the iTunes Music Store: a video and a digital booklet of liner notes. Make sure you have iTunes 4.8 installed on your computer if you want to play the video, though.

The bonus material is similar to the compact discs that include a bonus DVD these days an "added value" goodie. The sheer size of video data probably prevents the inclusion of a whole DVD's-worth of material (like the full-length concert video that comes with Rufus Wainwright's Want Two album, or the 40-minute documentary tucked inside the jewel case with Music For Two by Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer) with an iTunes Music Store purchase, but the downloadable extras are a nice touch for people who miss liner notes or a little bit of extra love from the artist.

There are just a handful of songs with video downloads available in the Music Store (blogger Michael Wyszomierski has published an iMix called Downloadable Videos), but that list is sure to grow. Songs and albums with accompanying videos may cost a buck or two more than regular songs, and since a video can be 50 or 60 MB of data to download, dial-up customers can probably get through most of Ulysses before the show starts.

The Preferences box in iTunes 4.8 now has a "Play video" checkbox that enables video playback within the program. You can adjust the settings in the iTunes Preferences box to automatically play video, and play it in your desired window size. Go to iTunes -> Preferences -> Advanced (on a Mac), or Edit -> Preferences -> Advanced (in Windows), make sure "Play videos" is checked, and adjust the window size with the drop-down menu to suit your fancy, as shown in Figure 2.

figure 2
Figure 2. Flip on the video box and pick your screen size for playback in the Advanced section of iTunes Preferences

When you buy an album or song with a video from the iTunes Music Store, the downloaded material appears in your Purchased Music playlist just like any other iTunes Music Store acquisition. If you listen to the playlist and you haven't set your iTunes video preferences, the video plays in the tiny artwork window where the album covers from purchased music tracks normally appear when you play the songs. Figure 3 illustrates this using the new Shins single, "Pink Bullets," which stars moody origami cows lip-synching the somber tune.

figure 3
Figure 3. Any videos included with your iTunes Music Store purchase show up in the Artwork pane (providing you have it open), but you can make them larger

But aside from hamsters, who wants to watch a video on a screen the size of a Lorna Doone cookie? Luckily, you have some options here. You can double-click on the window to open the video in its own separate medium-sized window (Figure 4) or click the full-screen video button at the bottom of the iTunes window (Figure 5) to play the clip at a screen-filling Video Maximus size.

figure 4
Figure 4. Double-click the Artwork pane to open the video in a separate and, more importantly, larger window

figure 5
Figure 5. Click the full-screen button below the Artwork pane to have the video take over your entire computer display. Tap the space bar to shrink it back to the Artwork pane.

The standard iTunes playback controls (play, pause, fast-forward, rewind) work on the film files as they do for fiddling with music tracks. What you can't do with these lovely videos--yet, anyway--is copy them over and play them on your iPod when you connect it to the computer. Any music-only portion of your purchase transfers just fine, but the videos stay behind back at hard-drive headquarters.

With a little extra effort, though, you can at least take the audio track with you when you're out iPodding around. This sort of thing can be handy if, say, you happen to have a downloaded movie or television clip with a soundtrack snippet or a released pop song playing behind the action and you just can't get the melody out of your head, even after repeated doses of extra-light supermarket jazz or some other brain-scrubbing genre.

To snag the audio track after you've added the clip to iTunes, select the video clip in your iTunes library list and choose Advanced -> "Convert Selection to AAC" to make an audio-only dupe of the track, as shown in Figure 6. This assumes that your iTunes importing preferences are still set to the default AAC; you can change the conversion file type in the Advanced menu by pressing Command-, on the Mac (Control-, on a Windows system) and selecting your audio choice on the drop-down menu on the Importing tab.

Once you have converted the selection to an AAC or other type of audio file, you just need to hitch up your iPod and copy the file, as you would with any other music track.

figure 6
Figure 6. Selecting a video file and choosing "Convert Selection to AAC" (or whatever format you've got iTunes using for importing your CD tracks) makes an audio-only copy of the video file

Playing Other Types of Video in iTunes

You're not just limited to Music Store purchases for your iTunes video ya-yas. You can add QuickTime and MPEG-4 files to your iTunes library, and store them on their own video playlist so you can have them all in one handy location (Figure 7).

figure 7
Figure 7. Video files can be rounded up onto their own playlist for easy access in iTunes

Getting your loose video files into iTunes is just as easy as adding maverick MP3 files you find floating around your computer. You can drag and drop them onto a playlist in the iTunes window or use the File -> "Add to Library" command to welcome them aboard. The files must be in the .mov or .mp4 formats, and .mpeg files won't play in iTunes unless you convert them to one of the accepted file types.

Movie teasers and trailers downloaded from the Web also work within iTunes, as long as they're in the right formats. This is usually not a problem, since QuickTime has become pretty much the lingua franca of digitized trailers, and the clips generally look pretty good in the full-screen view, some of them even with the black widescreen bars to maintain the panoramic proportions of the frame, as shown in Figure 8.

figure 8
Figure 8. Commercial movie trailers, as long as they're either .mov or .mp4 files, also work with iTunes, and can fill the screen nicely. As a courtesy to readers, no closeup images of Jar Jar Binks were even considered as potential screenshot material.

The addition of video playback to iTunes is both exciting and heartening. Exciting, because the decision to include videos and electronic booklets along with music tracks gives the world of digital downloads more enticing features to lure CD buyers into the space-saving (and tree-saving) medium. Plus, it's always fun to find new features in an old familiar program.

And the whole thing is heartening for those who worry that Apple is going to rest on its laurels and not continue to enhance and innovate its software until the competition roars up from the outside lane. The company doesn't seem to be sitting still.

According to Steve Jobs, at the D: All Things Digital conference in late May, version 4.9 of iTunes (due any day now) will include support for podcasting, those personal audio blogs that anyone can record and distribute. So while video in iTunes may not kill the radio star, podcasting sure might take a whack.

J.D. Biersdorfer is the author of iPod: The Missing Manual and The iPod Shuffle Fan Book, and is co-author of The Internet: The Missing Manual and the second edition of Google: The Missing Manual. She has been writing the weekly computer Q&A column for the Circuits section of The New York Times since 1998.

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